Engine of Liberation


Let’s be clear though. For all its importance the automobile was not a fundamental invention. Such an invention must be something completely new under the sun, and the automobile, when all is said and done, is still just a horseless carriage. Fundamental inventions overturn the cultures that created them and bring forth whole new ones in their place. Twelve thousand years ago agriculture doomed the hunter-gatherer way of life and, in a few millenniums, created civilization. The printing press brought the Middle Ages to a crashing halt in only a few decades. Three centuries later the steam engine ended the primacy of land as the basis of wealth and made possible the triumph of capitalism and democracy. In our own day the computer in the form of the microprocessor is, right before our eyes, remaking the world once again in ways that as yet we only dimly perceive.

But if the automobile did not overturn nineteenth-century civilization, it greatly enlarged its possibilities and strengthened numerous trends already under way—and, as we have seen, made the world a much nicer place. In doing so, it put its stamp on this country, visually, economically, and socially, even artistically, as no other invention—including that great transformer of the nineteenth century, the railroad—ever has.

First, let’s look at the visual. One need only compare a nineteenth-century city, such as Chicago, with an essentially twentieth-century one, such as Houston or Los Angeles, to see how profound has been the impact of the automobile on the urban landscape. It has had an equally profound effect on the rural one.


IN 1900 THERE WERE ONLY SOME two hundred miles of paved roads in the entire country outside of cities. There was little need for them because only 4,000 cars were manufactured in the United States that year. A decade later, however, 187,000 cars were produced in a single year, and the demand for good roads was growing as quickly as the nation’s auto fleet. The Bronx River Parkway, begun in 1907 in New York, was the first limited-access highway, intended as much for “outings” as for actually getting somewhere. By the 1920s a system of interstate highways was beginning to take shape, one that would be completely replaced by another, far grander, starting in the 1950s.

The commerce along these new thoroughfares was from the outset affected by the automobile. The new cars needed gasoline. At first this could be purchased at general stores, bicycle shops, or smithies trying to reverse an irreversible decline. Then in 1905 the first purpose-built gas station opened, in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1913 the big oil companies, sensing opportunity, began opening their own stations. Soon there were hundreds of thousands.

But the new gas stations faced a problem. At the speed of a horse, about six miles an hour, people had time to look ahead and see what they were approaching. At thirty and soon forty miles per hour, however, that was much more difficult. So signs grew larger, and corporate logos became important for the first time because they could be grasped in an instant. The wordy style of nineteenth-century advertising started to disappear, not just from billboards but from newspapers and magazines, as the old sort of ad began to seem antiquated. The new punchy, visual style, of course, was perfectly pre-adapted to what would become the dominant advertising medium by the 1950s, television.

The new advertising style soon affected American literature as well, as did the automobile directly. For instance, the Philip Marlowe novels of Raymond Chandler—set in the already auto-besotted Los Angeles of the 1930s and 1940s—are unlike anything written in the nineteenth century.

The need to grab the attention of the passerby in an instant also led to numerous minor American art forms, such as buildings in the shape of ducks, tepees, Paul Bunyan, and heaven only knows what else. There was even a new kind of poetry. In 1925 a retired insurance salesman named Clinton Odell began manufacturing a brushless shaving cream. He sought to find a new way to bring it to the public’s attention, and it was his son, Allan, who found it. He suggested using a series of small billboards, each with one line of a jingle on it and the last with the name of the product: WITHIN THIS VALE/OF TOIL/AND SIN/ YOUR HEAD CROWS BALD/BUT NOT YOUR CHIN—USE / BURMA-SHAVE .

SIGNS grew larger, and corporate logos first became important, because they could be grasped in an instant.

It virtually demanded the attention of the passing motorist (and, perhaps especially, any child passengers), and the result was immediate commercial success for Burma-Shave and a national craze for jingle writing. By the 1940s there were as many as seven thousand different Burma-Shave jingles lining the nation’s highways, and the company paid a hundred dollars for every one sent in and accepted. Today the Burma-Shave campaign lives only in the advertising hall of fame (if there is such a thing), but perhaps an echo can be seen in a latter-day minor art form, the vanity license plate, which also commands close attention from passersby. (My favorite was on a Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible spotted on Sutton Place in Manhattan. Its license plate: “ 2ND CAR .”)